“The ballet of The Red Shoes is from a fairy tale by Hans Andersen. It is the story of a girl who is devoured by an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of red shoes. She gets the shoes, goes to the dance, and at first all is well, and she’s very happy. At the end of the evening, she gets tired and wants to go home — but the red shoes are not tired. In fact, the red shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the streets, they dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by. Love rushes by. Life rushes by. But the red shoes dance on.”
In the midst of telling this story to composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) walks over to a sculpture of a dancer’s foot en pointe and begins brushing his fingers against it, then puts his hand around it. Enacted by anyone else, this might be an absentminded, meaningless gesture; with Lermontov, it’s like an expression of devotion. As he explains early on in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 film The Red Shoes, ballet is a religion to him, which is why he has no interest in watching young dancer Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) perform at her aunt’s (Irene Browne) party. “One doesn’t really care to see one’s religion practiced in an atmosphere such as this,” he says.
What he doesn’t realize at that point is that ballet holds a similar significance for Vicky, to whom it’s something downright primal. When he asks her why she wants to dance, she responds with a question of her own: “Why do you want to live?” Lermontov is taken aback. “Well, I don’t know exactly why, but… I must,” he says. “That’s my answer too,” she replies firmly.
Contrary to what Lermontov might have imagined, Vicky is no mere dilettante. At his invitation, she joins his ballet company, and though she’s disheartened to find herself starting at the bottom — maybe she misunderstood him, or maybe she thought her aunt’s recommendation would suffice to win special treatment for her — her hard work and natural talent soon pay dividends, especially after star dancer Irina Boronskaja (Ludmilla Tchérina) leaves the group to marry. This is a tragedy and a betrayal to Lermontov, but it turns out to be Vicky’s lucky break, because he chooses her to dance the leading role in his new ballet: the aforementioned The Red Shoes.
After weeks of intense preparation — exhausting rehearsals, squabbles between Vicky and Julian over the music’s tempo, Lermontov controlling everything down to when Vicky can drink water (“You don’t want to ruin your breathing, do you”?) — The Red Shoes finally premieres. Other ballets are seen briefly throughout the film, generally just enough to give the audience a taste of them, but The Red Shoes gets a full fifteen minutes of screen-time. Beginning, as it does, at the movie’s midpoint, it’s the centerpiece in every sense of the word, a magical, exhilarating, sometimes overwhelming sequence, a celebration of art as cinematic as it is theatrical. Not only does the camera give viewers numerous perspectives that they could never get from a seat in a theater (all in glorious Technicolor, adding to the dreamlike quality), but many of the effects would be impossible to execute onstage: Vicky falling from a great height and landing gracefully on her toe, a man made of newspaper becoming a flesh and blood human being, dancers briefly transforming into paintings of flowers, birds and clouds. It also seems to tap into Vicky’s psyche, most notably when the shoemaker turns into both Lermontov and Julian — the two men who represent the opposing sides of her life.
The Red Shoes, in addition to marking Vicky’s “birth” as a true artist, gives rise to something unexpected: a love affair between her and Julian. To everyone else in the company, this is a charming thing, but Lermontov is nothing short of appalled. He makes his feelings about love and romance perfectly clear earlier in the film, after Irina announces her engagement. “I’m not interested in Boronskaja’s form anymore, nor in the form of any other prima ballerina who is imbecile enough to get married,” he says. “You cannot have it both ways. The dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never.” Told that he can’t alter human nature, he replies, “No? I think you can do even better than that. You can ignore it.” If ballet is his religion, then perhaps dancers like Irina and Vicky are his goddesses, and he cannot bear to find that they’re human after all. He refers to the company as his family at one point, but whatever affection he may feel for them, he’s more than willing to cast them aside if they disappoint him; it’s rather pathetic.
And so, like a jealous lover — one who’s solely interested in Vicky as a vessel for his cherished art — he finds an excuse to force Julian out, only to have Vicky quit in solidarity shortly thereafter. She intends to dance elsewhere, by necessity a step down in Lermontov’s eyes and in her own. “I could make you one of the greatest dancers the world has ever known. Do you believe that?” he asks. She does. “And all that means nothing to you?” he persists. “You know exactly what it means to me,” she answers solemnly, though she refuses to change her mind — yet.
The red shoes dance on, and the lure of a brilliant, fulfilling collaboration with Lermontov proves to be too much for Vicky to resist after she marries Julian and her career tapers off. In different circumstances, she might be able to find a balance between the professional and the personal, but the two men — perfectly symbolized by a picture frame in her dressing room, containing a drawing of Lermontov and a photograph of Julian — are inflexible: Lermontov demands total devotion for the sake of their art, and Julian refuses to let her work with the man who bruised his own ego. Vicky, driven by her passion for ballet and her desire to reach her full potential, is unable to find a compromise. “I thought once, Mr. Lermontov, that there would be no room in my life for anything but dancing,” she says when she quits the company; she may be right.
This post is part of En Pointe: The Ballet Blogathon, hosted by Christina Wehner and Love Letters to Old Hollywood. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.